When I walked into Krista Paulsen’s Posts + Beams, fractals were definitely not on my mind. I was too busy enjoying the precise, delicate, loving, almost fetishistic tiny renderings of architectural details from buildings around the Long Beach State University campus.
In considering Paulsen’s work more carefully, it is in its way, quite fractal. Perhaps the best-known quality of fractals is self-similarity at various scales. And I’m not thinking about that quality here. Another fundamental aspect of fractals is high sensitivity to small changes in initial conditions. If you’ve ever played with a fractal generating program, you’ll know that giving it a seed of “1.5” vs “1.5001” will result in dramatically different results. And, in fact, this is precisely the quality at work in The Butterfly Effect.
A butterfly flaps its wings in the Rain Forest and a week later there’s a rainstorm in Texas.
We often take The Butterfly Effect as a general idea of complexity or indeterminacy, but it is very much about high sensitivity to small changes in initial conditions. Not everything works this way. The tides do not possess this quality. But the weather does. Accordingly, we can accurately predict the tides every day for the next 10,000 years. Yet as everyone knows, trying to predict the weather any more than a day or two out, is folly.
To my lazy eye, many of Long Beach State University’s buildings have roughly similar appearances. But to Paulsen’s much more keen eye, each is unique and beautiful. Paulsen’s boxes each feature 3 or 4 gouache renderings of the architectural details of an LBSU building. In the 8 boxes she explores:
University Student Union
One of the strips usually features red brick. But the scale and pattern vary from building to building. Small changes. Through these small variations, mid-century architect Edward Killingsworth, as appreciated by Paulsen’s eye, used a restrained palette to generate a range of campus buildings. In her exhibition statement, Paulsen wrote of Killingsworth,
His mid-century architecture and simple color palette used on CSULB’s campus speaks strongly to my aesthetic and inspires me.
My dad made the boxes
In discussing her installation, Paulsen offhandedly mentioned that her dad made the boxes. Her dad the architect. Just a small detail. From viewing the exhibition, you’d have no way of knowing if the boxes were bought from a frame store, or made by Paulsen herself, or as it turns out, made by her architect father. A small detail. One that contextualizes Paulsen’s attention to architecture and detail. What did she look at when she was growing up? When I was growing up my parents’ friends had reproductions of paintings from the Huntington Library on their walls. Paulsen probably had a childhood invitation to look at more, and more carefully.
I made the numbers
It turns out that Paulsen would have simply bought numbered map tacks to put next to her boxes if she knew where to get them. Since she didn’t have time to sort that out, she made her own. The numbers are certainly a tiny detail. But Paulsen’s Posts + Beams is all about tiny details. And whether pre-planned or serendipitous, Paulsen’s tiny paper numbers dangling oh-so-delicately from pins are entirely consistent with the restrained elegance found everywhere in her installation.
Krista Paulsen, Buddhist Illustrator?
Twenty-five centuries ago The Buddha spoke of being awake. Of wakefulness. In the simplest of terms, most of us are awake for some part of every day. But he was thinking of a much more profound awakeness. One that so many of us are challenged to achieve. Especially now in our 21st century of distraction.
Here in 2017, we are still forced to watch ads by online platforms. But in a time, at least for the Global North, where attention is the only thing of real value, I believe the day will soon come when people are paid to watch ads.
Krista Paulsen is awake. And paying attention. This week in the Merlino Gallery she presents the fruits of paying attention to the small details of a large university campus.
The current American President dreams of a White Nation.
Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service has argued that the United States does not have an Immigrant problem. He believes instead that it has a Native Born problem. He’s argued that America should welcome immigrants. To help make room, America should ask the 3rd generation of native-born to go elsewhere and give someone else a chance.
Made in America by an Immigrant
Cintia Segovia was born in Mexico City. She learned English as an adult in the United States and recently became an American citizen. In her performance, installation, and video work, Segovia explores language, gender, immigration, border walls, and other aspects of life when people try to move across lines on maps.
For her MFA thesis exhibition Gato Encerrado, Segovia has installed 6 video monitors in the Long Beach State University, School of Art’s Merlino Gallery. It feels like a grand summary of the ideas she’s explored in recent years.
I’ve seen Segovia’s performance work Ritual of Judgement performed at two different venues. I’ve also seen a live performance version of her video work A Big Beautiful Wall. There is a power in Segovia’s physical presence. A certain mild-mannered quality. But also a seriousness and gravitas. Her immigration officer in Ritual of Judgement is deeply serious and demanding. If you’re a native-born American, the piece gives you a glimpse into an experience that you have not had, but that so many immigrants have. To become a citizen, an immigrant must learn more about America than many native-born Americans ever learn. A fact that was highlighted by an immigrant’s question to a native-born American in July 2016,
Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.
— Khizr Khan, 28 July ’16
At one of Segovia’s performances, I decided to go ahead and fill out the form for an interview. But there was a long wait. And I didn’t like the questions on the form. I wound up in an argument with the immigration officer. The argument felt right in terms of the dynamics of the space. Yet if I were a real immigrant, with this officer holding my future in her hands, it’s hard to imagine I’d do anything but submit.
Pixels living together in harmony
Segovia’s performance work is powerful. I also appreciate her MFA thesis exhibition as a video installation. Partly for the complex choreography of the videos and Segovia’s heroic efforts to synchronize them all. But even more for all those glorious pixels. In spite of our president’s dream of an American monoculture, I am convinced that it is diversity that gives America its strength, creativity, and economic prosperity. The many cultures remixing each other at Venice Beach. A rich city like San Diego slamming up against a poor city like Tijuana. What accommodations, improvisations, mashups, must one explore to survive?
A single pixel has no meaning. Spread a couple million pixels on a screen and you can tell complex, rich stories. All the money in America, the bills, the coins, bear the words E Pluribus Unum. The story of the pixel is the story of America.
What does it mean when you turn your iPhone over and read the words
Designed by Apple in California, assembled in China
on the back?
That California is a creative place? Why? Why not Designed by Apple in Shanghai? Or Designed by Apple in New York City? Or Designed by Apple in Berlin? Does God love California more? Is there something more noble about the waters of the San Francisco Bay than the waters of the Yangtze River Delta? I think the difference is the diversity. To see so many monitors with Segovia’s face on them, her raster face composed of so many glowing pixels, is to see a pixel gestalt analogous to the American gestalt.
Segovia describes the people on screen as less her characters, and more as aspects of her persona or identity. Each persona speaks for a few minutes. And then waits. Sits in silence. Waiting as the other personas speak. As you visit the installation, the speech hops from monitor to monitor with one speaking and 5 waiting.
My eye was drawn to the speaking persona. But those waiting are also elegant embodiments. Part durational experience like an Andy Warhol or Bill Viola piece, they also reflect the waiting that all immigrants must do. Waiting to get in. Waiting to be processed. Waiting to be checked up on. Waiting to exit.
When Artem & Masha from Perm, Russia came to visit me, their flight had a 14-hour layover in Paris. Unfortunately, Russia is not an EU country, and while they had visas for the United States, they did not have visas for France. They weren’t allowed to leave the airport. They weren’t allowed to get a sweater from their luggage. All they could do was try to sleep in a cold airport. To be an immigrant is to wait.
When perfectly synchronized, no video overlaps any other video. Only one speaks at a time. Segovia tried to have one laptop stream all six video signals to the monitors, but that proved to be too much data transfer for the laptop to handle. She settled for the laptop sending 3 video streams and manually starting the other three. I think that sending so much video from a central source may not be the best solution. A control program, from her laptop or a Raspberry Pi, could send only control pulses to Blu-ray players at each monitor. I think this is a more scalable solution.
On Wednesday Segovia was teaching at CSU Northridge and asked her friends to open the gallery and start the videos. They made a valiant effort to synchronize them but didn’t quite get it perfect. There were some moments of speech overlap. And some moments of silence everywhere. And, that was great! The totally silent moments were a wonderful variation. The overlapping dialog was inspiring. When perfectly synchronized, the speakers are almost too polite. Too deferential. Yes, to survive immigration might require a bit of deference, but, as Segovia’s bilingual installation shows, it is also a world of many speakers. Of many tongues. Of simultaneous translation. I’m confident that Segovia will come up with an even stronger technique for synchronizing her videos. But I’m not sure she needs it. The not-quite-in-sync videos present a wonderful experience of multilingual mashup.
Filling the piñata’s head with ideas
Since I don’t speak Spanish, I am the immigrant to this video. I don’t know all that’s being said. But the images speak loudly. The piñata -girl matches Segovia in brown hair, red lipstick, and orange dress. Is she assembling the ingredients of her brain? Things she is composed of, or will need? Or is she exorcising baggage? As Segovia describes and comments on items to viewers, like a feather pen, a Barbie doll, or here, her United States passport, she inserts each item into the piñata’s head. Candy for a party? Or loading software into her brain so she can run on the USA21 Operating System?
In a couple of the videos, Segovia talks to herself a la Natalie Tran. In a multilingual dialog, her personas debate the small things in life. In some ways, these are the most playful and clever of her videos. Yet by having another person to talk to in video-space, it turns the gallery visitor into more of a voyeur. With the single-persona videos, Segovia tends to address the audience and pulls us into her story. These pieces capture some of the power of her live performance work where you are guided through seemingly simple, yet increasingly Kafkaesque experiences.
Expectations Service Program of the United States of America
In this video, Segovia helps immigrants understand their role vis-a-vis their new country and their home country. What assumptions will be made about them? How can they best assimilate?
In an inset to the Expectations Service Program of the United States of America video, Segovia features a close-up of her lips pronouncing a word, and has the captioning,
A chingón… Someone that is not afraid of working hard
As a non-Spanish speaker, I’m not completely certain of the meaning and use of chingón and chingona. Here’s how Angela Aguirre, co-founder of Chingona Fire, defined Chingona for the Huffington Post earlier this year:
Chingona noun. 1. a Spanish slang term meaning “bad ass woman”
Although the word “chingona” is a Spanish term, it is not limited to Latinas.
A chingona is any woman who chooses to live life on her own terms. PERIOD.
She is the scholar AND the hoe. At the same damn time. OR she is neither.
The point is: she gets to choose. And whatever choice she makes, is the right one.
Chingona is a contested word. Empowering for some. Offensive for others. Faggot is a word I would never use. But I know gay guys who call each other faggot. Used by someone who isn’t gay, I think faggot is a term of oppression. But used by someone who is, I think it is a term of endearment. Of understanding. Of common experience. Bitch is another contested term. It’s probably a term I shouldn’t be using. But there are women who call each other bitch in a familiar, or affectionate, or empowering way.
Cintia Alejandra Segovia, chingona?
Is Cintia Alejandra Segovia a chingona?
I am not the arbiter of that!
Still… her work explores the most contentious issues in our culture. And she does this in a lighthearted, accessible way. Cintia Segovia charms, and entertains, and offers cultural insights, all at the same time. Maybe she is the baddest chingona in the room.
Artist: Cortnee Brush Exhibition:Onanist Media: Performance Art Gallery: Long Beach State University, School of Art, Merlino Gallery Website: na Instagram:
Commercial Art is often dominated by talented artists with strong, clear visions. Their confidence and clarity are part of what they offer clients. I’m not sure Fine Art can be that way. If one’s work is to be a genuine investigation, it may require doubt.
Doubt comes in many forms. Sometimes it is the methodical exploration of possibilities. Other times it can be a debilitating lack of confidence. In any of its many forms, I believe that doubt is at the heart of much of the most compelling work. I’ll take the insecure genius of an Andy Warhol asking everyone, what should I do next? over the machismated confidence of Richard Serra flinging hot lead against a wall.
In developing Onanist, Cortnee Brush started from a place of doubt. Doubt about her art practice. Doubt about object production. Doubt about not making objects. Doubt about Performance Art. Doubt about Documenting Art. Doubt about whether all art is masturbation.
Onanism – “masturbation,” also “coitus interruptus,” 1727, from Onan, son of Judah (Gen. xxxviii:9), who spilled his seed on the ground rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife: “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.” The moral of this verse was redirected by those who sought to suppress masturbation.
Brush began the investigation that led to Onanist with doubt about her own art practice. Or perhaps the value of all art practice. Is it art if there isn’t some tangible product?What if it is only experience?Is that art? Or masturbation?
In an early version of this piece, Brush saw herself creating a figure to sit in the chair. Over time she decided the figure needed to be her own body.
Onanist is a durational work of about 40 minutes. As the work began I wondered why she scheduled performances at 12:30, 2:30, 5:30? Why wasn’t it simply a day-long performance of her in the gallery space? By the time the performance was over it was clear that this was not a scenario audience members could drop in and out of. If you’re only there for 5 or 10 minutes, nothing much happens. If you’re there for the complete 40-minute performance, you are witness to a sublime journey.
The work begins with Brush entering the gallery. Near the entrance, she removes her shoes and some excess clothing. In a lace dress, she sits in the large chair. After about 10 minutes the vibrator turns on. Apparently at some performances the vibrator dances around the floor, however at the performance I attended it didn’t move, instead simply vibrating in place. And adding its low hum to the music in the gallery and the various noises from outside the gallery. Once seated in the chair, Brush doesn’t appear to move for about 40 minutes. If you look closely, you can see that she is breathing, but not moving otherwise. Her eyes never closed, but across the 40 minutes, they seemed to ever so slowly grow narrower and narrower. Her body was relaxed and her facial expression was neutral. Her face seemed to take on a slightly greater intensity over time. Late in the work, several tears streamed down her cheek. In the stillness of this piece, these tears were powerful moments.
After vibrating for about half hour, the vibrator turned off. A few moments after it turned off, Brush picked up a condom from the floor, tore the package open, and took out the condom. She moved from the chair to the floor where she picked up the vibrator, took a condom off it, and put the new one on it. Placing the vibrator back on the floor, she got up and moved to the entrance. After putting on her shoes and extra clothing she left the gallery.
When I entered the gallery a few minutes before the performance began, I didn’t know how long it would run. 3 minutes? 90? During the time of the performance, I had no idea how much longer it might run. And then it was over. And suddenly the whole, amorphous journey took on so much definition and clarity. I felt that I had been witness to a powerful human experience. To a cathartic journey.
In his beautiful 2001 book Andy Warhol, Wayne Koestenbaum describes viewing a long, durational, Warhol film where “nothing much happens”. Koestenbaum wants to take notes on his pad, but he is afraid to take his eyes off the screen for fear of missing something. Onanist had this quality. During the performance, a number of people entered and exited the gallery, usually staying only for one or a few minutes. I wonder what their experience of this work was? It seems like “nothing much happens” in 5 minutes. Yet after 40 minutes, you have witnessed a powerful human experience. The sort of experience we rarely have the opportunity to witness.
A Non-Narrative Journey
I took a journey with a performance artist. In reading books, or watching films or plays, we also take journeys. The parameters of these are typically more defined. I watch the pages turn as I read the book. I know the film is two hours and I can see the plot points and act breaks. In Brush’s more amorphous experience I didn’t know the terrain. Yet with the performance’s end, the whole journey came into focus. Allusions to masturbation and sex and buzzing vibrators might bring ideas of frantic cadence to mind. But Brush’s performance was, at least formally, quite the opposite.
Where was she during this 40 minutes? In meditation? In memories? Was she imagining physical experiences? Relationships? Moments? The vibrator seemed to me like a candle or campfire. She was a part of its glow. But if it was the central flame, she was somewhere on the periphery. Somewhere in a very interior, deeply personal journey.
What was my role as audience? To watch, or experience, her journey? Or to focus on the vibrator flame and take my own journey. I did some of both. At times I closed my eyes and focused on sounds. Other times I focused on the palpable, if nearly frozen, presence of Brush. My meditation was far less deep than Brush’s. I didn’t go where she went, but I watched her go there. It didn’t feel voyeuristic in the experiencing, but perhaps it was. It was a performance of great vulnerability and generosity. I wonder how many others had the complete experience of her performance, and not just a few minutes peek at a space where “nothing much happens?”
I love the Long Beach State University, School of Art, Merlino Gallery because of it’s small size and extreme aspect ratio. I’ve always thought of it as the site-specific gallery. Yet in conversation with Brush after the performance, we both wondered if, in this case, the gallery and the particular staging did not help her audience. What about a not-so-narrow gallery, like the LBSU Dutzi gallery? There she might arrange pillows in a perimeter of shadows which could invite more viewers to see the complete performance. With the Merlino installation, many viewers seemed inhibited. Seemed afraid to cross one of several liminal zones.
Some visitors simply didn’t get past poking their head through the black drape. Others did enter but stayed in the entrance area with the lamp and comment book. For those that ventured further, the chair seemed to mark a sort of proscenium space beyond which the audience presumed it wasn’t supposed to go. In a more round installation with floor pillows, gallery visitors would have a much clearer invitation to enter the space. I was fortunately too ignorant to sense the invisible line of the chair and so I viewed part of the performance from a far corner of the gallery. Seeing Brush more directly was powerful. It might be inserting more gaze into the space, and as an audience member you do feel more on-stage yourself, but it is also a rich experience.
The Grey Goo Problem
In the coming age of nanobots, self-replicating carbon structures that can make all sorts of wonders from simple replication instructions, one big concern is The Grey Goo Problem. In addition to doing whatever they do, it is essential that the nanobots contain a stop replicating instruction. Without such an instruction it is possible that the nanobots would transform all matter on earth without stop. Eventually all life on earth would be repurposed into creating an almost infinite ocean of nanobots. The surface of the earth being transformed from the diversity we know today, into an endless mass of nanobots. Of Grey Goo.
If you rewind 21 centuries, small, persecuted religions, like nanobots, encoded a reproduce! instruction. But unlike our hopefully regulated nanobot future, these religions did not contain a stop reproducing instruction.
A small, persecuted, literally underground (catacombs) religion needs a reproduce instruction to survive. “Wasting seed,” as in Onanism, is a sure path to extinction. It is understandable that an early religion would tie powerful biological urges to survival of the religious culture. And so, not wasting seed, not indulging in masturbation, coitus interruptus, birth control, homosexuality, abortion, became core instructions. 7.5 billion human beings later, religion, and other factors, have brought us the grey goo problem. But this grey goo problem is not made of nanobots, but of humans.
Today the species on top of the earthly life pyramid reproduces out of control. With no predators. With no self-regulation in response to ecological niche. With no stop reproducing instruction. Today it is not only acceptable to decouple pleasure from reproduction, it is essential for our survival. The onanistic imperative to not waste seed doesn’t work anymore. It needs to be turned off.
Documentation is Capitalism
At some point, nanobots need to stop reproducing. At some point, humans need to stop reproducing. What about Art? Do we have too much art? Do we need all the pieces tucked away in every artist’s studio? In every art gallery storage space? In every art museum vault? Do we need it all? Or should we let it go? Should we be Art Onanists?
At her Situation Room last year, Micol Hebron told me that she has documented none of the myriad performances and installations she has facilitated there. When I expressed surprise, she offered,
Documentation is Capitalism
This was a new thought for me! And I’m still grappling with it. As someone who loves documentation, I’ve never fully made my peace with Snapchat. I’ve never used the term, but perhaps a part of me thinks that Snapchatters are New Media Onanists.
Using Snapchat doesn’t decree that nothing be preserved. It only decrees that not everything need be preserved. In the many meanings of Onanism in Brush’s work, is one a call to make ephemeral work that can’t be made object? Pleasure and experience without reproduction? Ephemeral work that can’t be bought or sold? Is documenting the work as I’m doing right now subverting this intent? If so, can I take solace in only occupying a few bits on a web server and not killing any trees or taking up physical storage space?
Making objects, and documenting work, does play into the money and power of the art market. Ephemeral practices like Hebron’s Situation Room subvert this commodity-capitalism impulse in art. Brush’s Onanist is a work that can be documented, but like so much Performance Art, or Land Art, it cannot be truly experienced through documentation. Documentation is essential to the history of Performance Art, of Land Art, of Site-Specific Installation. Most of the work that comprises the corpus of these investigations is known more through documentation than through direct experience. Yet, as was clear at Brush’s performance, while documentation is essential to advance the discussion, it is not experiencing the work. It is not having the experience that the Onanist had in her moment.